Considered a rural idyll in today's world, the Cotswolds have been shaped over centuries by man – indeed the area owes its character and distinct look to man's intervention. For the Cotswolds, while making a great place for a relaxing caravan holiday today, was once a barren land.
The Romans introduced sheep to the area (the 'Cotswolds' literally means sheep enclosures on hills) and, in turn, the area had its golden age in the late Middle Ages, when the sheep – and their prized wool – made a name for themselves internationally. Merchants came from all over Europe to trade, 'wool towns' sprang up across the region and the wealth was pumped into magnificent houses, market halls and churches. Hence the quality of the stone architecture of the villages and towns, and the charming Cotswold stone walls that give the landscape such appeal, is a potent reminder of the area's once thriving and prosperous industries.
The Cotswolds' other asset, its band of oolitic limestone, of course, helps the architecture. The colour of the stone varies from creamy white to a deep, golden brown, seen in the villages and towns across the region.
These medieval wool towns and villages sprang up across the northern part of the Cotswolds, with places such as Chipping Campden and Northleach prospering as a result. The woollen cloth industry then began to boom during the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly along the rivers, hence areas around the Stroud Valleys began to prosper as mills were built up and down stream. Here, you'll find towns and villages such as Nailsworth and Chalford have an altogether different feel from that of their north Cotswold counterparts.
Much of the Cotswolds is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a status close to that of a national park. Covering 787 square miles, it is the largest of all the AONBs in England and Wales. The focal point for the AONB is the visitor information centre – called Escape to the Cotswolds! – at Northleach. Here, you can find lots of information about the historical development of the area and the characteristics that define it.
Predominantly rural, there are so many delightful small towns and villages, in addition to open spaces, worth visiting within the area that it is impossible to mention them all. A caravan holiday in the Cotswolds could last a lifetime!
In the north of the area, some of the best towns and villages to look out for include the most well-known places such as Chipping Campden, Broadway, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold, plus the charming but perhaps overdone Slaughters and Swells. For somewhere lesser-known but equally as pretty, head to villages slightly off the beaten track such as Cherington, Barton-on-the-Heath, Broad Campden or Willersey. Or how about pretty Winchcombe?
Snowshill is another favourite with tourists, owing to its cosy appeal and the beautiful National Trust-owned Snowshill Manor (plus the village's brush with fame as the setting used for the blockbuster, Bridget Jones' Diary). Head out of the village a couple of miles and you'll come across Cotswold Lavender, a kind of Provence in the Cotswolds with rows of purple hues perfuming the air. There is a great tea room, where you can try lavender scones or shortbread, or stock up on lavender plants for the garden.
The Oxfordshire Cotswolds, in the east of the region, is triangulated by the three towns of Chipping Norton, Witney and Burford, each one, again, prospering through wool – it's only in the last decade that the final mill in Witney shut its doors, with Witney blankets synonymous with quality.
In amongst these are superb, small river valleys – the Windrush (which, indeed, flows through both Burford and Witney) and Evenlode – both tributaries of the River Thames and great for pleasant riverside strolls. Other tributaries of the Thames, the Leach and Coln, are equally as picturesque, with popular haunts such as Bibury and Northleach on their routes. Again, move a couple of miles away from the daytripping coach tours and you'll find villages no less pretty without the crowds – Hatherop and the Eastleaches, Ablington and Sherborne.
Of course, the Thames itself bursts into life in the Cotswolds – in a field close to Cirencester. Cirencester (on another Thames' tributary, the Churn) itself is a merry mix of Roman remains – the Corinium Museum in the town centre provides the highlights – and medieval architecture, with a stunning market place and parish church.
But the Thames gathers pace, very slowly, as it trickles and meanders through delightful towns and villages such as Cricklade, Lechlade-on-Thames and the utterly idyllic Kelmscott. About as good as it gets, this is where William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, called home, the surroundings such as the willow trees along the riverbank, inspiring many of his most famous artistic designs.
South west of Cirencester is Tetbury, a throng of antique dealers and interior design shops that surround the prominent, pillared Market Hall. The bustling town is also where the flagship Highgrove Shop sells gifts connected to HRH The Prince of Wales and the Duchy of Cornwall (his private Highgrove Estate is a couple of miles from the town).
It's now possible to book tickets to visit the outstanding gardens at Highgrove, although also of note a handful of miles south east are the Abbey House Gardens in Malmesbury. This often-overlooked town is a delight, with a landmark ruined abbey at its centre; the gardens are next door and provide one of the best views of these mystical remains.
It is, however, from the main Cotswold escarpment that runs down the western edge of the area, that the best overall views can be found. The busy market town of Stroud, which also made its name from woven cloth, sits in the middle of five sprawling valleys, each one with a personal character.
The Slad Valley, the childhood home of author Laurie Lee, is perhaps the most picturesque (and with a feeling of enclosure with its steep valley sides) with gorgeous villages like Cranham and Sheepscombe worthy of a pub lunch. But for the best views, head to Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons, high spots between the Nailsworth and Golden Valleys (so called because of the wealth generated there during its 17th- and 18th-century heyday). It's a fantastic spot for walking, kite-flying or enjoying Rodborough's very own ice cream, Winstones.
Towards the far south of the area is the Wiltshire Cotswolds, perhaps the most visited tourist hotspot being the idyllic village of Castle Combe. It does get choked in summer, however, so to find space to call your own, head to the nearby village of Slaughterford, or devour a picnic overlooking the duck pond at Biddestone. There you can enjoy the Cotswolds with little more than the ducks for company.
Top five things to do in The Cotswolds
Walk along the Cotswold Way, a 102-mile National Trail between Chipping Campden in the north and Bath in the south. The route follows much of the main Cotswold escarpment in the west of the area, with outstanding views of the hills and valleys, including the Severn Vale below and the Malvern Hills and Wales beyond. Find a high spot for a great view at Dover's Hill, Broadway Tower, Cleeve Hill, Leckhampton Hill, Painswick Beacon, Minchinhampton or Selsley Commons, or Uley Bury.
Make a night of it at The Pudding Club in Mickleton, home and saviour of the traditional British pud. You'll get to try seven different puddings throughout the evening, with much pomp and ceremony to celebrate each one, including favourites such as Steamed Treacle Sponge, Eve's Pudding and Jam Roly Poly. Loosen that waistband!
Follow the trail and legacy of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Pre-Raphaelites throughout the Cotswolds. Good places to start include the Court Barn museum in Chipping Campden, the Gordon Russell Design Museum in Broadway, Rodmarton Manor, Kelmscott Manor, Owlpen Manor, and the churches of Eaton Hastings, Buscot and Selsley.
Visit an arboretum to explore the wonderful world of trees. Westonbirt, the Forestry Commission's jewel near Tetbury, is unique to the Cotswolds. Planted over two different soil types, there are two distinct areas: the Old Arboretum containing many rare and exotic specimen trees from around the world and the Silk Wood, with themed groups of oak, ash, cherry and national Japanese maple collections. Batsford Arboretum, near Moreton-in-Marsh, is a much more personal affair, with the largest private collection of trees in the UK. Algernon Freeman Mitford designed the arboretum. He was the grandfather to the notorious Mitford Sisters, who lived on the estate as children.
Enjoy a visit to the Cotswold Farm Park, the home of BBC Countryfile presenter, Adam Henson. Created by his father, founder of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, in the 1970s, it was the world's first farm park but today you'll encounter many rare breeds of livestock, including Cotswold sheep and Gloucester Old-Spot pigs. With a caravan park on site, there's no excuse.
When to visit The Cotswolds
You'd think that everyone that lives in the Cotswolds is mad! There is certainly a silly season; Cotswold residents know how to have a good time. And with many campsites in the Cotswolds to choose from, you can pitch your van and join in on your caravan holiday.
While autumn and winter are the times to enjoy a brisk walk on the hills followed by a quiet pint sat in front of a log fire in some cosy pub, spring and summer bring out the madness.
It all kicks off on May Day morning when you'll find morris dancers bringing up the sun on Ilmington Downs. Thus follows a season of bell-jiggling, stick-tapping and hanky-waving outside many a pub on a summer's evening; it's a great way to enjoy a local brew.
Also on the spring bank holiday Monday are the Woolsack Races in Tetbury, where a team of men and women race down – and back up – the very steep Gumstool Hill between the Crown Inn (at the top) and Royal Oak (at the bottom) carrying a bag of wool, weighing a staggering 65 pounds, on their shoulders. Clearly, there is some liquid refreshment involved!
By the end of May, the competition gets even sillier – or madder. For there's cheese rolling down Cooper's Hill (with a 1:2 incline) on the Whitsun bank holiday Monday, when competitors chase after a wheel of Double Gloucester – the winner is the one who gets the cheese (or doesn't end up in hospital).
If that's not silly enough, there's shin-kicking to be had on top of Dover's Hill near Chipping Campden, just one of the events at Robert Dover's Cotswold Olimpick Games. A precursor to the modern Olympic Games (yes, really), these festivities date back to 1612. Traditional sack races and tug of war contests are essential activities too.
May also sees the start of the season for Giffords Circus. A very special traditional circus, this is as much a part of the Cotswolds as stone walls and hills, with a different show each year. The travelling circus (though based in the Cotswolds) stops off at various locations within the area, including many of the Commons, finishing in Cirencester every September.
At a different speed, the Bugatti Owners' Club holds many events throughout the season at the club's home, the Prescott Hill Climb, considered one of the world's greatest motor racing venues, near Cheltenham. Two of the club's biggest events are the Midsummer Speed Fest in June and the Prescott Gold Cup in September. Other event days include celebrations of vintage cars, French cars and American classics.
During July and August, the big shows and festivals take over, first The Cotswold Show at Cirencester, a large 'county' show with agricultural tones and outdoor pursuits. The Moreton in Marsh Show, held on the first weekend of September, also brings out the best of the farming community.
The end of July hosts WOMAD, the World Music Festival at Charlton Park, near Malmesbury, while the beginning of August sees the Wilderness Festival, held in the beautiful Cornbury Park, near Charlbury – a feast of music, food, theatre, literary debate and outdoor activities. The Big Feastival takes place at the end of August on Alex James' (Blur bassist cum cheesemaker) farm near Kingham. The music and food fest is 'headlined' by Alex and his chum, Jamie Oliver.
Finally to finish off the madness before all goes quiet again, there's the exciting Football in the River, a thrilling footy match held in the River Windrush, Bourton-on-the-Water, on the August bank holiday Monday. Prepare to get wet!
How to get to The Cotswolds
The Cotswolds is a particularly rural area and it's inevitable, therefore, that a part of any journey is likely to be on minor roads. In the first instance, use the M4 from the south, the M5 from the west and the M40 from the east of the area.
The A429 – the Fosse Way (an old Roman road) – cuts straight through the area from Warwick (and beyond) in the north to Chippenham in the south. Cirencester, Northleach, Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh are all en route.
The A44 links Oxford in the east of the area with Worcester, north west of the area. Broadway, Moreton-in-Marsh and Chipping Norton are all located on this busy A-road.
The A40 links Oxford with Cheltenham, passing by Northleach and Witney, while the A417 links Gloucester with Swindon, passing by Cirencester and close to the Cotswold Water Park.
The A433/A46 links Cirencester with Bath, passing through Tetbury, while the A46 links Cheltenham with Bath, passing through Stroud and Nailsworth.
For ease of driving, these are the best routes to use when towing a caravan, however, for great views on top of the Cotswold escarpment, use the B4066, between Dursley and Stroud. There are some twists, turns and hills to climb, but the views are some of the best in the area.